Microfiction + Film Notes: Dune 2021


Take It To The Top

 "I'm sorry!" he squealed, holding his hands in the air. "It's not my fault!"

"What to you mean?" I said, doing my best to seem grim and resolved. In truth, my murderous rage had been replaced with a mixture of regret and pity. 

"I... well, there's no easy way to say this," he said, "but I automated my job a few years ago. The quarterly reviews are written by a program that takes your metrics and assigns them sentences from a lookup table. I know I shouldn't have done it, but it was..."

"Motherfucker!" I exclaimed, and he dove for the floor. When he cautiously stuck his head back up, I was already sitting, gun in my lap, giggling away. "You lazy bastard, I knew it! I thought you just copy-pasted old reviews."

"I did at first," he said, apologetically, "but this was quicker. You were a good worker, for what it's worth. Never had any complaints."

"That's because I automated my job years ago," I chuckled.

"That makes sense. Anyway, I wasn't the one who fired you. Not really. I got an email from the Department Manager saying we needed to cut staff, and I picked your name at random. Downsizing, the email said. I guess it's contagious because they fired me next. Look," he said, gesturing around the office. For the first time, I noticed the lack of decorations and the tragically overstuffed banker box in one corner. "It's my last day."

"Well let's go talk to the DM," I said. 

[Three Days Later]

"And it turns out nobody is responsible! Even the people who write the programs don't fully understand the programs. And what I want to know is," I said, waving an admonishing finger, "what you're doing about it! Is this the plan for your creation?"

God leaned forward, stroking His beard with one hand. "You aren't going to like this," He said, "but..."

Silicone Dreams

Silicone! Glass made flesh! A magical substance that bonds metal to glass, glass to plastic, plastic to cloth, cloth to wood, wood to metal. The alchemists dreamed of a universal solvent; instead, we created a universal glue. Secreted into every joint of a modern home, the connective tissue of whatever architecture is calling itself these days. Imagine a world where things had to fit together instead of nestling in a squamous bed of all-engulfing silicone. Cracks sealed, gaps filled, the home becomes a perfect capsule.

Lignin, that miracle polymer, made plants into titans. A few ambitious and temperamental bacteria eat lignin. Termites and cows don't; they're just sacs full of bacteria. That's how we got coal; the lag between lignin and anything that could eat lignin. We talk of rot as if it were some inevitable law, but rot is far more unnatural than rust. 

A tree can remain a tree only so long as it lives, pumped full of antifungal chemicals and healing sap. When defenses fail, rot sets in, and fungi have their day. But silicone will never rot, never be devoured by ambitious bacteria, at least not in the forseeable human future. Give it a few million years. Plastics and resins can burn and have some tasty-looking bonds; they'll be the first to go, but little pellets of silicone will roll around the world long after we are gone.

Or maybe, filled with regret, we will give bacteria a head start via directed evolution and turn them loose on the world. Silicone erodes easily but doesn't rot. Imagine a silicone beach bubbling between your toes. Squishy sand, immortal, vulnerable to light and time but not life. Silicone, reeking of acetone like a dying monk or casting off clouds of acetic acid, stimulating the appetite while remaining implacably inedible. All hail the glass made flesh!

Notes on Dune (2021)

Dune (2021) features concrete, the distant future, genetic memories, Navigators, and musings on human evolution. It had a 165 million USD budget and is 2.5 hours long. Dune is full of noise. Incredible, visceral sounds. Jumps from darkness to blinding light. It's not quite a hostile filmgoing experience, but I did feel like a pea in a tin can by the end of it. At least I could understand most of the dialogue. Cinematography by Greig Fraser (of Rogue One fame), using a lot of the same visual textures (for good or for ill). 

The Last and First Men (2020) features concrete, the distant future, genetic memories, Navigators, and musings on human evolution. It had a budget of [not much] and is 1 hour long.

The Last and First Men consists of a thrumming score, narration, an oscilloscope, and long black-and-white shots of the monuments of Yugoslavia. These monuments are famous on the internet. They're usually presented without context, mislabeled, or given entirely fictitious histories.

Is their use in The Last and First Men appropriate? I think so. The film is about deep time. Using decaying monuments whose meaning is largely forgotten, makes sense. It's hard to argue that they're being exploited for profit; the film grossed less than $10k at the box office.

The Last and First is a quiet, contemplative, hypnotic, arty film. As science fiction, it's as dated as its source material, but so is Dune

It's been a long time since I read the books and I don't have access to a local copy of the film, so these notes might be less coherent than usual.

Et tu, Brutalism?

Are the ships in Dune brutalist, or do they merely appear to be? Can a structure be brutalist without the context of the brutalist movement? Brutalism, as Kate Wagner says, is as much a "big mood" as a formal style linked to a particular period and to specific architects.

I don't know. It's not my area of expertise.

It's interesting that a concrete starship with crazing and pour layers and lumps of aggregate feels right - even intriguing - in 2021, but would have been completely ridiculous in the '70s. "You can't just film a retaining wall and pretend it's a space ship. Space ships are sleek and colourful, or if they're not, they're at least clearly technological."

Dune also has a peculiar blend of high and low technologies. Some ships hover as if by magic. Some require balloons. Some require wings. Some feel like they're steered by holographic controls or mind-links. Some have buttons and toggle switches like a '60s helicopter. It's all a bit odd. Why use flappy ornithropters or hot air balloons when the spice harvester scout pods hover like many indie developers without any visible means of support? The divide is not consistent; the high-resource Sardaukar use balloon-ships. What are the rules of this setting?

Low Gravitas Warning Signal

The film can't decide if it's using formal language or not. Some conversations are stylized, some are full of contractions and generic Hollywood filler dialogue. All the actors are competent, but there's a tiny nagging sense that they're winking at the camera and saying "we're in a film, isn't this all a bit silly".

This is odd because Dune is an immensely serious film. There's no comic relief. I don't mean Whedon-esque quips and banter, I mean anything that relieves tension and allows the film to build momentum again. The closest it comes is landscape shots. If you're going to go full serious, commit! Put the Opera back in Space Opera. Write dialogue that uses the English language to its full extent, and get some classically trained actors to deliver it. They're used to saying very silly things with gravitas.

Containment and Contentment

It would be interesting to see a film that contains its own sequels, in the form of flash-forwards and prophecies. We know how Dune plays out. Revenge. Blood. Triumph. Etc. We might not know the details (and some of those details are fucking weird, but the basic plot is clearly and unambiguously given to us in the first film. We don't need to see the love story; we've seen it. We don't need to see the revenge-murders; we can imagine them them. It's a retelling of the same story. We know how it ends.

It would be amazing (and impossible) for Dune Parts 2 and 3 and Maybe More to take a different direction. Dune (2021) isn't telling a story. It's portraying historical events. Any deviation feels like alt-history. Sure, scenes get cut and details get changed, but it's still Dune, in the same way that the Christmas Carol is the Christmas Carol. But they could do it. They could introduce a twist or two that nobody who's read the books or seen the other films expects. Give the Spacing Guild a subtle plot of their own. Introduce another Great House. Change Paul's attitude towards the Golden Path. Bring back Thinking Machines. They won't (the cowards), but they could.

It's also interesting that this version of the story cuts the CHOAM corporation, or any corporate aspects, out of the script. It's an entirely feudal affair, not capitalism-as-feudalism. There's still talk of profit and loss, but no directorships or all-consuming commercial power. Imperialism is fine as long as it's the right kind of imperialism. Resource extraction is fine as long as it's done by nice people.

Ambivalent Schemes

The Atreides are nice to the Fremen because they want to use them. Their strategy is subtler than the Harkonnen burn-and-oppress tactics, but they're not winning hearts and minds for their own sake. They want an army for ambitious political reasons; the Fremen could be manipulated to be that army. The film vaguely presents this as a good thing. Rebellion against the system is only intolerable until the system can utilize the rebellion.

"The Holy war is spreading across the universe like an unquenchable fire. A warrior religion that waves the Atreides banner in my father’s name. Fanatical legions worshiping at the shine of my father’s skull."

It's not their cause. It's just another move in the game of the great houses. Will the sequels address this in any meaningful way? Probably not. Critique the savior-narrative, but still go along with it, because it's fine as long as you feel guilty.


Sci-Fi: Assorted Gear and Upgrades

Equipment lists are the core of many sci-fi RPGs. For some types of game, a gun is a gun and it does gun things. For others, the mechanical difference between a snub-nosed autopistol and flechette pistol can create interesting optimization problems. If a game is about gear, the gear should be interesting.

In a standard game, you're exchanging one resource for another. Money, time (in the form of rarity or difficulty of acquisition), weight, stealth. Bonuses to accuracy, penalties to damage. Flexibility or specialization. Optimization lies in finding areas where the exchange, or a series of exchanges, creates a favourable outcome at a lower than expected cost. 

Optimization is sometimes pointless; the problems a character is optimized to solve may not be the problems a group encounters.

Most games with gear lists have the basic/obvious tools covered. In long-running game lines (like Traveller or Fantasy Flight Games' Rogue Trader), the same tools might be published multiple times. I think Rogue Trader has three or four different "temporarily fake your own death" drugs; it's a problem-solving tool authors clearly thought players needed.

The tools below are systemless and should fit in any generic sci-fi setting. They're tools I think a group would find useful, or that I'd be pleased to see on a list, but that I haven't seen in a published book. This doesn't mean they're unique (I can't possibly have read every gear list), but at least they're interesting. If I was sensible and had the time, I'd turn this into a 'zine or something.

Vadim Sverdlov

Ranged Weapon Upgrades

Janus-Pattern Rail Barrel

Replaces the barrel of any standard chemical propellant weapon (or equivalent) with a stacked-core railgun, and the weapon’s magazine and/or stock with a high-density power cell. Sabots must be muzzle-loaded, but a single railgun shot when a target is expecting a low-velocity slug can provide an edge in high-staked engagements. Barrels are guaranteed for 3 shots (in atmosphere) or 12 (in vacuum).

Timeshift Scope

Uses proprietary Chrono-Shift ™ Technology to provide a visible superposition of all possible futures, weighted by probability. See where your enemy will be a half second before they move.

Note: prolonged use of Chrono-Shift ™ Technology may result in paranoia, degraded reaction times, headaches, nausea, sixth-finger syndrome, and glaucoma. Chrono-Shift ™ Technology is illegal in the New Netherlands. Speak to your local arms dealer to find out of Chrono-Shift ™ Technology is right for you.


Hammerton-Smythe Non-Lethal Agony Rounds

A mixture of red gelatin, calcite crystals, mild but highly soluble neurotoxin, and foaming agents. Hammerton-Smythe prides itself on realistic fatal wounds with consistently non-fatal effects. Our motto: “Experience Mortality”. Available to fit most shotgun-style chemical propellant weapons, or in a handy 3-shot disposable pistol.

Hexbound Bullets

Thanks to an exclusive partnership with Demon Lord Buxogspan Mulcifent, the soul of any mortal slain with a Hexbound Bullet will be sent to the Hell of Unlimited Scorpions* for a time period not less than one eternity.

*Unless otherwise engaged. Some restrictions may apply. 

Neon Tracer Epoxy

Everyone knows the adage, “Tracers work both ways.” If you’re going to be visible, why not be fashionable? Send a streak of neon goodness. Leave your mark on the battlefield.

Currently Available: Arc, Blood, Obsidian, Prismatone.
Discontinued: Blacklight, Faefire, Glitter, Spiral.


Suitable for high-calibre chemical weapons or grenade launchers, the Fellaporter is a premium payload for the discerning bounty hunter. On impact, the round opens a 2m spherical wormgate to the paired receiver. Range is 1km in ideal conditions.

For best results, do not use a Fellaporter within 10km of any other active Fellaporter (or other wormgate device). Ensure receiving antenna has a clear line of sight to the target. Do not store Fellaporter rounds near bismuth. Do not look directly at the Fellaporter impact site. Ensure everything you intend to teleport is within 2m of the impact site. 

Kryo-Lok Kapsules

A three-part highly endothermic chemical mixture in a convenient delivery package. Freeze up to a litre of room-temperature water in an instant. Damage against conventional or armoured targets is minimal (compared to standard rounds), but unconventional targets are in for a nasty surprise. WARNING: do not damage a Kryo-Lok Kapsule. Remove the protective casing before firing. The manufacturers are not responsible for catastrophic cascades that may occur if Kapsules are loaded improperly, damaged, heated, or exposed to ultrasonic vibrations.

William Bennett

Ranged Weapons

Tuneable Ray Gun

Now with 7 settings!

1. Radio. Send an aggressive morse code message, track a target’s speed or distance, or temporarily jam a comm-link.
2. Microwave. Gently warm something polar. Scramble badly built electronics.
3. Infrared. Gently heat something.
4. Visible Light. A handy flashlight.
5. Ultraviolet. Illuminate suspicious stains,
6. X-Ray. Extensive exposure may cause mild burns, sterility, or cancer.
7. Cosmic Ray. Completely undetectable by most equipment, and equally harmless to most terrestrial life.

Melding Beam - Quantum Foam Shotgun

Take a failed prototype for a jump-capable torpedo, flip it around, add a trigger, and give it a coat of paint. The Melding Gun opens a wormhole foam between a focal point 1m from the barrel and a point 50m distant. Anything along the line is mixed in sub-mm pockets. The effect is hampered by metal, but is catastrophic to most other materials. Misfires in high-energy environments are tragically commonplace.

Melee Weapons

Posthuman Combat Brick

These handy little devices turned up in a shipment of kapok, and we're selling them at a discount because, quite frankly, they creep us the fuck out. The shipping label says they came from a warehouse that doesn't exist, and that our head receiver was the one who requested them, but our head receiver died in a tragic fusion core accident six months ago and we haven't appointed a replacement. 

ANYWAY! This fist-sized brick of inert metamaterial seems to transform the violent intent of the wielder into direct action. Even the most advanced armour offers no protection. If you can hit someone with this brick, they'll feel it. Available while supplies last, which could be a while as the crate seems to refill itself.



Omniversal Hydroid Headhunting Rig

So simple a feral ghoul-bot could manage it. Simply remove the sealant sticker, apply the base plate to the neck stump, attach the fluid clamps, and flick the green switch. Get answers from beyond the veil. (Answers not guaranteed). Interrogate meat for up to a minute! Works on any reasonably cranial stack from a Core or Core Adjacent species.

Plasticizing Injector

One tube per 100kg of target flesh. For best results, ensure target is completely immobile and all circulation has ceased. Patch any large holes with adhesive plasters (sold separately). Adjust pose. Inject tube(s) near the centre of mass, then stand clear. Remove polymer chrysalis and metabolic debris. Display your new trophy in a tasteful and legally acceptable manner.

Delbond Instant Flashtape

When you want to go from accessorized to weaponized in the blink of an eye, use Delbond Instant Flashtape. At your electronic command, the tape disintegrates into carbon weave and nitrogen gas. Shed an outfit on the red carpet, surprise a partner, or sabotage a drogue chute. 

Facial Recognition Serum

The human mind contains specialized pathways for recognizing faces. A single dose of FRS permanently enhances these pathways. Users will never forget a face. Camouflage loses some effectiveness. Assassins can no longer rely on shadows and mirrors. Use of FRS as a paranoia-inducing toxin is not recommended by the manufacturer.

Neutralizing Powder

Two tubes of dried and pulverized hallowed and unhallowed earth and an automatically adjusted silver mixing bowl and spreader. Each package creates up to 1m3 of ground that is, theologically, neutral territory. 

Rest-Frame Gyro Pack

Prevent, or at least diminish, unwanted acceleration. The faster you move, the faster the gyros spin, converting velocity into heat and noise. While the gyros can't stop you from falling (at 1g, at least), it can reduce impact speed to a manageable level. Extended use may melt the gyros. Temperature warning lights will activate as core temperature rises. Ensure the pack is switched to "inactive" before boarding a vehicle, or set the activation velocity to a suitably high value.